Mama's Writing

Emily Raboteau | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, created by Deesha Philyaw.


How has the experience of raising children shaped your own personal growth as a writer and as an individual?

I have two kids. They are now eleven and thirteen years old. My writing habits have changed a lot since they came along. I’m more methodical now. I try to get a little bit of writing every day, preferably in the mornings, rather than binge writing at night, which is what I used to do. My subject matter has also changed. In the last decade plus, I’ve been writing less fiction and more nonfiction – personal / political essays about the forces that threaten my kids’ well-being. My new book, Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse,” is a collection of linked essays about climate change, social and environmental justice, from the lens of Black motherhood. I’m more interested in local politics than I used to be. I guess I feel I have more skin in the game, though I don’t mean to suggest anyone needs to have kids to feel that way. 

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a parent, what would it be?

Since I knew that I wanted to have children, but not the degree to which it would take a village to raise them, nor how much wisdom I would need from older women, I would advise myself to live closer to my mother, or to convince my mother to move closer to me. 

How do you navigate societal expectations or stereotypes as a Black parent in your writing while staying true to your authentic voice?

I write about stereotypes pretty directly. I suppose my authentic voice means to call them out. For example, I wrote an essay about the insidious racism and stereotypes that surface in New York City playgrounds among parents anxious about school placement. What the “good” schools are. Where the “bad” schools are. Those conversations are really code for race and class. We have one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. It’s so painful. 

What themes or topics do you find yourself drawn to explore in your work since becoming a parent, and why?

I was a travel writer before I had kids. My last book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora represented a decade of travel looking at Black utopian communities across the globe. My writing became a lot more local to NYC after having the kids, since this is where we live, and it’s harder to do deep investigative journalism elsewhere. Luckily, New York City is a global city, and endlessly fascinating, with so many layers and pockets. Ironically, I wrote this one essay called “Climate Signs,” about visiting a public art project staged across the city’s five boroughs, and it was anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, even though I technically never left home. I’ve learned to train my traveler’s gaze upon my home place. That said, now that the kids are older, they’re saying they want to go to Japan…

How do you handle creative challenges or setbacks?

I’ve learned to ask for extensions on deadlines when I need them, which is pretty much always. I’m late with everything. Someone always gets sick, or gets head lice, or something, throwing a wrench in my writing time. I’ve learned to be more flexible, less precious about guarding my time. The pandemic was the biggest setback of all, but I was weirdly productive in that era. Maybe because I was taking notes on and writing about the era itself, as we were living through it. 

How do you navigate the fine line between sharing personal experiences in your writing while respecting the privacy of your family?

I’m not comfortable revealing very much about my family at all, outside of the experience of mothering, which is to say, my own experience. I don’t write about my kids’ diagnoses or gender identities, for example. Their life stories are still in development, and are theirs to tell. The only story I feel comfortable telling is my own. I write about my fears for my kids, my hopes for them, my love for them.

How do you carve out time for self-care, down time, and creative expression? 

I’ve been enjoying gardening for both self-care and creative expression. I try to get out into my garden every day, even if it’s just to have a cup of coffee, or to weed a little. It calms me down to be out there, among the pollinating plants, watching the bees and birds and stray cats. You know, I went through this Jamaica Kincaid phase in my twenties. I read everything she’d published – except her book on gardening. I wasn’t ready for it until I reached middle age.

How has your parenting journey impacted your perspective on your writing career and artistic aspirations?

Being a parent has both lowered my bar and raised it when it comes to my writing career. I’ve published three books. I’ll be satisfied if I publish five total before I die. I just want one of those books to survive me. I can’t know which book that will be. For me, that would be enough. I remember when my kids were babies hearing some kind of calculus about how having a baby was like giving up on writing two or three books. I felt upset about that at the time, as if I’d given up on a dream. I’m more relaxed about it all now. I’d rather take my time with the writing so that it’s seasoned. I’d rather have quality time with my kids while they’re still under my roof than feel bitter about not spending enough time working. 

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

I have comadres in my community – women with kids the same age as mine. We trade childcare to offer one another free time to do whatever it is we need to do. I feel comfortable asking these women if they can take my kids, and vice versa. I think it’s good for my kids to be exposed to other kinds of parenting, other cultures, other languages.

What advice would you give to other mothers who aspire to pursue their writing goals while raising a family?

Find the comadres. If you’re mother’s still alive, live near her so that she can help out. Wake up early in the morning. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Join a writing community.

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

Grace Paley was my teacher. She’s one of my heroes because she balanced writing with activism and parenting. Like Alice Munro, she only wrote short stories. That’s what she had time to do, at the coffee table, while her kids napped, or were at school, She had time to write short-form. The form had to fit around the content of her life. 


Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Emily Raboteau’s books are Lessons for Survival, Searching for Zion, winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the novel, The Professor’s Daughter. Since the release of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, she has focused on writing about the climate crisis. A contributing editor at Orion Magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Raboteau’s writing has recently appeared and been anthologized in the New Yorker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, the Atlantic, Best American Science Writing, and elsewhere. She serves as nonfiction faculty at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writing Conference and is a full professor at the City College of New York (CUNY) in Harlem, once known as “the poor man’s Harvard.” She lives with her family in the Bronx.

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Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About.